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The Black Hole

Cause and effect in scientific funding


The NIH on Thursday issued a notice titled, “NIH Operation Plan in the Event of a Sequestration.” For those of you following the sequestration talks here in the United States, the following should come as no surprise.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is facing an 8.2 percent across-the-board cut in future years (5.3 percent for 2013) which is set to have long-term repercussions for scientific advancement in this country. To put this in context, the average basic research grant in the U.S. is five years long, meaning that only 20 percent of these grants come to their end every year. Of that 20 percent, roughly half are renewed, leaving approximately 10% of annual funding levels available to support new investigator grants.

An 8.2 percent across-the-board cut is most easily collected from this 10 percent, which would specifically target the present cohort of young scientists and certainly set back medical science a generation. The alternative is to make each individual grant worth less, the repercussions of which were recently addressed by former NIH director (2002-2008) Dr. Elias Zerhouni in a recent interview with Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post.

While our funding situation in Canada is certainly more stable, the drama currently unfolding south of our border should serve as a lesson for our government in cause and effect as it relates to scientific funding.

The notice reads:

The NIH continues to operate under a Continuing Resolution as described in NOT-OD-13-002, and therefore all non-competing continuation awards are currently being funded at a level below that indicated on the most recent Notice of Award (generally up to 90% of the previously committed level). Final levels of FY 2013 funding may be reduced by a sequestration. Despite the potential for reduced funding, the NIH remains committed to our mission to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.

Should a sequestration occur, NIH likely will reduce the final FY 2013 funding levels of non-competing continuation grants and expects to make fewer competing awards to allow the agency to meet the available budget allocation. Although each NIH Institute and Center (IC) will assess allocations within their portfolio to maximize the scientific impact, non-competing continuation awards that have already been made may be restored above the current level as described in NOT-OD-13-002 but likely will not reach the full FY 2013 commitment level described in the Notice of Award. Finally, in the event of a sequestration, NIH ICs will announce their respective approaches to meeting the new budget level.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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